Improvement has been James Franklin trademark

ASSOCIATED PRESS DaeSean Hamilton is now PSU’s all-time receptions leader.

If there’s one word that underscores James Franklin’s work to this point in his Penn State football tenure, it’s improvement.

And that’s not by accident.

At Vanderbilt and now Penn State, Franklin has built an impressive track record of taking over and patiently tinkering with a program and steadily making it better from game to game and season to season.

His Vandy teams posted records of 7-6 followed by a pair of 9-4s with his last two years ending with win streaks of seven and five, including two bowl victories.

Vanderbilt hasn’t been heard from since.

At Penn State, with far greater resources and tradition, Franklin is building on that template with a pair of 7-6s serving as a prelude to last year’s Big Ten championship and continuing an upward ascent to where the Nittany Lions find themselves this morning.

And that’s facing dangerous Northwestern, as a two-touchdown favorite, while riding an 11-game win streak in the Big Ten and winning 14 of their last 15 overall.

The rise has resulted in a No. 4 ranking nationally with the Nittany Lions poised to cap the first half of the season with a 6-0 record and set the table for what could be the most anticipated back-to-back matchups, against Michigan and at Ohio State, in their 25-year history of conference affiliation.

Franklin isn’t looking that far ahead, and part of his success comes from getting his players and everyone around him to buy into a one-at-a-time mentality.

He did, however, provide a big-picture glimpse of his mission during this week’s press conference.

“We understand that we’ve got areas that we have to improve in all three phases, and we’re going to identify it and we’re going to be very honest with ourselves,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I take a lot of pride in as the head coach over my career is we have fairly consistently gotten better as years have gone on from my first year of being a head coach till now, and that’s what we need to do again this year.”

Those areas of emphasis started with poor special teams play in his first two years — a product of the scholarship limitations and since corrected — followed by ineffective offense (he changed coordinators) and last year’s slow starts (the Lions are now outscoring the opposition 73-0 in the first quarter).

“Our program is going to continue to emphasize the things that we’re doing well and the positives and build confidence from that, but we’re going to identify areas that we need to get better, and we’re going to spend time focusing on improvement,” Franklin said. “It just needs to be a gradual improvement each day and each practice and each game, and if you do that, we’ve got enough strengths that … if we can just get these weaknesses a little bit better, then we’re going to be difficult to deal with.”

Penn State has definitely been that.

Of course, Franklin also said when he took the job, “I find the plays work better when you have good players,” and, with the entire staff recruiting — a novel concept, isn’t it? — he’s certainly stocked the roster with talent and depth.

Aside from a shaky field goal operation, one of the unchecked boxes this week is next to the offensive line.

After greatly improving as the season unfolded last year, the O-line’s regression has been surprising since it was replacing only one regular, Brian Gaia, the center and a strong leader.

To be fair, while the cast has been the same, injuries to Andrew Nelson and Chaz Wright have created a challenge, Connor McGovern is new at center (he played guard last year), Brendan Mahon moved from tackle to guard and 10 of Ryan Bates’ 14 starts last year came at guard; he’s now at tackle.

If the line is not better today than it was last week against Indiana, allowing five sacks and failing to create much running room for the great Saquon Barkley, some changes may be in order either promptly against Northwestern or during the open date prior to Michigan’s Oct. 21 visit.

There’s another box Franklin will be eager to check today. That’s beating Northwestern. He’s 0-3 against Pat Fitzgerald, losing once at Vandy, twice at PSU and on both trips to Ryan Field.

Fixing that will build Penn State’s momentum to a fever pitch for when the Jim Harbaughs come to town.

It will also signal continued improvement.

Rudel can be reached at (814) 946-7527 or